By Stefanie Dazio and Brian Melley | Associated press
LOS ANGELES – The Coast Guard has announced new safety rules following a fatal fire that killed 34 people on a scuba diving boat off the coast of California more than two years ago, including the installation of fire detection and extinguishing equipment.
The 2019 Labor Day fire aboard the Conception off Santa Barbara marked the deadliest maritime disaster in modern state history and has led to criminal charges and calls for more regulations. strict for small passenger vessels.
The new interim rules will come into effect over the next two years. In addition to fire systems, owners of boats with overnight passengers will be required, among other things, to better escape below deck and to use devices that ensure that a night watchman is alert and makes frequent rounds.
An investigation into the disaster blamed the owners of the Conception for a lack of surveillance and the boat’s captain for failing to post a roving watchman aboard the ship, which allowed the blaze to spread quickly and trap the people. 33 passengers and a crew member below deck. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crew members, all of whom were sleeping on the deck, escaped.
Boylan has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of manslaughter of a sailor. He is out on bail pending trial in US District Court in Los Angeles.
The new rules were expected after Congress mandated in December 2020 that the Coast Guard review its regulations for small passenger vessels. The law, included in the National Defense Authorization Act, also added new requirements regarding the detection and suppression of fires.
The new rules apply to small passenger vessels with sleeping quarters or operating on oceans or coastal routes, but exclude fishing vessels and ferries.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in its investigation that the Coast Guard require boat owners to install more comprehensive smoke detection systems, modernize emergency exits and perform mandatory inspection checks on traveling watches.
Since 1991, no owner, operator or charterer has received a citation or fine for failing to dispatch a roving patrol, prompting the NTSB to blame the Coast Guard for failing to enforce this requirement and to recommend that he develop a program to ensure that boats with overnight passengers have watchmen.
The rules would also require boats to have at least two exits, so if one is not available, there is another way to escape. Exits must be clear and both cannot be directly over a bunk.
The Conception bunkhouse had an open stairwell to the bow and a small escape hatch that was difficult to access and climb above one of the berths in the center of the boat. However, the two led to the galley, which was on fire.
Family members of the deceased have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the boat company, Truth Aquatics Inc., and the family that owned it. They also sued the Coast Guard for lax enforcement which they said sentenced people under bridge.
Families said the fire detection and extinguishing systems were not compliant and the two escapes from the dormitory violated Coast Guard regulations as they led to the same location.
The boat had passed its last two Coast Guard safety inspections.
The Coast Guard declined to comment on the lawsuit due to a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
The rules published late last month in the Federal Register begin to take effect on March 28 and could be changed after a public comment period that ends in June.
Other new requirements include better crew training, evacuation drills for passengers and advice on how to handle flammable items such as rechargeable batteries.
While investigators said they couldn’t determine the cause of the blaze because the boat burned down and sank, they say the fire started towards the aft of the main deck saloon – where divers plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with combustible lithium-ion batteries.
After the fire, the Coast Guard issued a bulletin recommending a limit on unattended on-board use of lithium-ion batteries and heavy use of power strips and extension cords.
Associated Press reporter Janet McConnaughey contributed from New Orleans.